Despite being based on horrific true life events, Bartosz Kowalski’s debut feature Playground totally blew me away. The film follows three 6th grade students on their last day of school: Gabrysia who is smart but a little shy and seeks comfort in self harm, and Szymek and Czarek with their unpredictable and menacing bravados likely to antagonise others. As Bartosz delves deeper into the students’ psyches, he explores questions about the relationship between troubled upbringings and child psychopathy, leading us down an increasingly dark path as the boys indulge in deeply sinister acts. I caught up with Bartosz during the London Film Festival to find out how he elicited such a potent and shocking feeling from his audience, whilst limiting the onscreen display of the boys’ most heinous moments.
Where did the inspiration for Playground originate?
I came across this shocking story that happened in the UK in mid 90s by pure accident. It moved me so much that I started digging deeper into the subject of psychopathy and conduct disorder. Once I interviewed police psychologists and realized that similar things happen everywhere, every day, I sat down and started working on a script. I never planned to make such a film debut, it was pretty much an emotional reaction.
The majority of the score is classical in nature, can you tell us a bit about your choices of music for the film?
There’s also a few ambient themes composed by brilliant Kristian Eidnes Andersen. But yes, the majority are classical pieces – one for each moment whenever a character travels from one place to another. There really was no crazy master plan behind the use of those specific tracks, I just thought they’d fit well. I’m a huge fan of film soundtracks and classical music, the pieces used in the film are also among some of my favourites.
How did your desire for realism influence your approach to filming?
I wanted the film to be as realistic as possible. That defined a lot of stylistic and storytelling choices. We decided to go hand-held all the way, we didn’t want to over stylize the film in any way. Any kind of dolly, crane shots, lighting effects would weaken the realistic feel of the film and therefore weaken the reception of the ending.
The end of the film is very powerful and (for the most part) shot long distance in one continuous static shot. Were you conflicted as to how to shoot such a horrifically violent and disturbing scene?
From the very beginning I wanted to stay far away with the camera from that horrific violence. Going into close ups would just make it unnecessarily gory, disgusting, cheap and also fake. I wanted the audience to witness that violence from a distance, without blood splashing left and right, like we’re used to in movies nowadays. But at the same time I wanted that violence to be as it is in real life – without editorial cut aways, without artistic metaphors, without special effects.
Any kind of dolly, crane shots, lighting effects would weaken the realistic feel of the film and therefore weaken the reception of the ending.
What was the function of dividing the script into separate acts?
The story takes place over one morning. I needed the geography of the film to be very clear since it was supposed to be this realistic, pseudo-documentary style observation. Titled chapters make it easy to navigate – where we are, who are watching, etc. Also, I was looking for a way to separate those acts in the editing room – without using fades. So a cut to black screen seemed like a natural choice.
What have you learnt from making your first feature?
Hope for the best, plan for the worst. I felt pretty well prepared when I stepped on set on the very first day. 5 hours later I sat down, with my head in my hands and realised that I didn’t take into account actor’s diorrhea, a trained dog going crazy or an unexpected thunder storm.
The quantity and quality of Polish cinema has increased in the last few decades, what do you feel has fuelled this turn around?
I really don’t know. But something is up, for sure. Back in the days most Polish films were unwatchable. Now I see for example Malgorzata Szumowska’s Body and I think to myself – damn this is some top notch European cinema!
What do you have in store for us next?
We’re about to submit a project to the Polish Film Institute and hopefully we’ll get backed up. It’s going to be something completely different from Playground, a story involving elderly people and monsters – I’m serious! But it’s a bit too early to talk more about it, I don’t want to jinx it.